We Went There: Wil Anderson's 'Critically Wil' at the Sydney Opera House
Over the past week, I’ve been interviewing comedians at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival about how the Trump era is affecting their work as comics and the word that keeps coming up as a description of how comedy feels now is ‘cathartic’. In our world of near-daily outrages and shifting norms, it’s not enough to just get up on stage and make a few funnies, these performers seem to feel, you have to exercise a few demons as well.
'Critically Wil' grounds the political in very personal terms and there's some strong autobiographical personal stuff here, ranging from reflections on his beginnings as the son of a dairy farmer and his early work in journalism to updates on his various medical woes. There is also some short but typically sharp crowd work (the superfluous ‘A’ in the name ‘Aaron’ gets a going over), yet ‘Critically Wil’ is mostly a topical beast, a show responding to, and fuelled by, the vexing headlines of the day.
One particularly well-observed section sees Anderson recount a long flight where the US election results filtered in as the plane was outside the connectivity zone, its passengers adrift in a kind of anxious purgatory. He finds himself shocked by the turn of events, though he’s not just blindly angry, but also genuinely tickled by the absurd comedy of how the unusual situation plays out. It’s a neat encapsulation of how much we need comedy in the darkest of times.
Much of the show tackles the dispiriting trend that having expertise or experience in something has somehow a disadvantage in the public debate and there are some killer analogies to this effect, one about how we should use the same logic we employ selecting a plumber as we do in voting for political leaders.
As a teenager, Anderson says his mother took him to see Billy Connolly and it changed his life forever. That passion for comedy, the unshakable belief in the release of collective laughter clearly remains. This palpable love for his craft gives his show a lot of its rollicking energy, yet the material it never crosses the line into being strident and completely avoids the off-putting shrillness and self-certainty that political commentators of all stripes have been guilty of lately.
There’s one particularly sly piece of trickery late in the show that yanks the comfortable rug out from under your feet and suggests that just as you shouldn’t unthinkingly swallow information that conforms with your worldview from a television talking head or Facebook headline, uncritically absorb what a stand-up comedian says as fact probably isn't the greatest idea either.
‘Critically Wil’ is a continuation of Anderson’s late-career renaissance, but the stakes feel higher this time. So it’s fitting that this year’s installment is not just funny (though to be clear: it is consistently, uproariously funny), but that it feels necessary and, ultimately, deeply satisfying.